About Rationally Speaking


Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, March 14, 2014

David Silverman and the scope of atheism

by Massimo Pigliucci

You may have heard of the latest tempest in a teapot to hit the often tumultuous waters of modern atheism, this one surrounding American Atheists’ President David Silverman.

Before getting to the meat of the matter — such as it is — let me give you the capsule commentary: i) No, Dave did not (contra Steve Ahlquist) “offer [a] compromise on women’s rights” to appease participants to the Conservative Political Action Conference [CPAC]; ii) the idea that there are secular arguments against abortions has not been “debunked” by Skepchick Sarah Moglia.

Let’s start with Ahlquist. He was very upset that Silverman went to CPAC to begin with, apparently under the misguided understanding that atheism is a special province of political progressivism (it isn’t). In particular, Ahlquist really didn’t like the following sound bite from the AA President: “I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion. You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.”

I find precisely nothing to object to in that statement, which seems to me obviously true. Not so, says Sarah Moglia over at Skepchicks: “If by ‘secular argument,’ you mean ‘a belief based on personal feelings,’ then, sure, there’s a secular argument against abortion. There could be a ‘secular’ argument against puppies, in that case. If you’re using ‘secular’ to mean ‘a logical, science-based, or rational’ belief, then no, there is no ‘secular argument’ against abortion. The supposed ‘secular arguments’ against abortion are rooted in misogyny, a lack of understanding of science, and religious overtones.”

Sarah, not everything you (or I, for that matter) dislike or disagree with is based in misogyny, stupidity, or religious fundamentalism, and it’s high time people stop using the m-word as the ultimate trump card to which one cannot possibly dare to reply.

Of course there are logical, science-based, and rational arguments against abortion. They may turn out to be ultimately unconvincing, or countered by better arguments — as I believe they are — but they certainly exist. To start with, you may want to spend some time perusing a few entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (like this one, or this one, or this one), for instance (don’t forget to check the relevant references too).

Are these arguments sufficient to justify forceful state interventions on women’s bodily integrity, under any circumstances? Very likely not. But plenty of countries (including the US) do already regulate, for instance, late term abortion, noting the ethical complexity of the issue and of course making room for a number of special circumstances, usually having to do with the health of the mother. Morally, should the decision to abort not be the subject of serious consideration, at the least on the part of the mother? After all, Dave didn’t say anything about legislation, he simply stated that the case of abortion is ethically more complicated than that of minority rights or Church-State separation. Seems to me that this is a no brainer: since abortion involves more than one life, and there is a marked difference in the consequences of a given decision for the two parties, the issue is thornier than others, and it ought to be so for secularists also. To decide to get certain types of abortion* (say, last trimester) is always (or, at least, should always be) a very difficult and emotional step, precisely because it has significant ethical consequences. There is no equivalent to that in, say, deciding whether to allow gay couples to marry or not, as a moment’s reflection should make clear.

Now, does that mean that we should therefore advocate a restriction of women’s rights as they are currently defined in the US? Of course not, nor do I see any evidence that that’s what Dave meant to suggest. But to dismiss the complexity of the issue by suggesting that only irrational, science-illiterate country bumpkins could possibly think that there is reason for pause is either intellectually naive or dishonest.

Now back to Ahlquist. He also doesn’t like a number of other positions Silverman took at CPAC. Apparently, Dave is “fiscally conservative,” “owns several guns,” is “a strong supporter of the military” and has “serious suspicions about Obama. [stating that] I don’t like that he’s spying on us. I don’t like we’ve got drones killing people…”

Well, to be fiscally conservative isn’t necessarily a bad thing, although it depends on what one means by that. I, for instance, would rather save on a lot of the corporate welfare funds that the US Government has been handing out to big corporations and banks for decades now. I think that makes me fiscally conservative, in a sense. And I don’t like Obama that much either, in part for the same reasons that Dave listed. However, I do profoundly dislike guns and people who like them, and I am most definitely not a strong supporter of the military.

Silverman is quoted as saying that “the Democrats are too liberal for me.” You can quote me as saying that the Democrats are far too conservative for me.

The point is: so what? What does any of the above, including abortion, fiscal conservativeness (or not), support for the military (or not), owning guns (or not), and liking or disliking Obama have to do with atheism? Nothing, absolutely nothing.

If there is a reason to criticize David Silverman, it is because he made the same mistake that a lot of progressive atheists make these days: thinking that atheism is somehow logically connected to one political position or another. It isn’t, and it can’t be, and it’s time to stop pretending it is.

You like progressive politics and are not religious? Great, join the American Humanist Association, or the local chapter of the Ethical Union (though they, bizarrely, do call themselves a secular religion — an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one). But, do recognize that there are libertarian atheists, and conservative atheists, and atheists who don’t give a damn about gun control, or women’s rights, or whatever it is you think should be at the top of the agenda of the “movement.”

In fact, pretty much the only social issues that ought to unite every atheist are the separation of Church and State and the rights of unbelievers. Not even a defense of science and critical thinking are really “atheist” causes, since there is a good number of atheists who buy into all sorts of woo (just not the particular woo featuring a white bearded male who sits high in the sky and spends a lot of time watching people’s sexual habits) — trust me, I know a number of them.

And please do not dare comment on this post and characterize me as conservative, misogynistic, anti-feminist, and so forth. I’ve written enough about all the above mentioned issues that it ought to be crystal clear that I’m to the left of Jon Stewart when it comes to all of them. Thank you.

_____

* The original wording here said "to decide to get abortions," which was meant to be understood in the context of the specifics I was giving. However, that was sloppy writing on my part. Clearly, plenty of abortions do not carry any moral problems at all (e.g., fertilized zygote, recently implanted embryo, and so on until a fuzzy line where the fetus is complex, responds to stimuli and most importantly feels pain). The current wording reflects my intended meaning.

137 comments:

  1. To David defense, as I heard him on some interviews like at Dogma Debate, he want to out as many atheists as possible and make sure that atheists can be liberal or conservative. In other words according to him atheism is not supposed to be linked to liberalism or Democrats, but as it's today, no sane atheist could vote Republican, because the Republican party was hijacked by the religious conservative right.

    So what he's trying to do is to create a space to conservatives to be able to oppose religious conservatives views in the Republican party.

    Silverman doesn't seem to be trying to link Atheism with conservative positons. Quite the opposite. He is trying to create a conservative space that will be OK to someone to be an Atheist and also be in favor of military interventions, guns, etc or not.

    Today It's practically impossible to think about an atheist Republican. An atheist Republican seems like an oxymoron. So as it's today if you are an atheist you almost certain will have to be aligned with Democrats, and THAT is effectively linking atheism with political ideologies.

    In my opinion the problem is deeper than that. US politics is very polarized and it seems there is no space to politicians to be in the middle ground for anything. It's only going to change if somehow, the political system is changed allow other political parties to gain space. I guess that Silverman won't be able to change it from inside.

    But we can't blame him for trying.

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    1. I am not sure a defense of David Silverman is called for since Massimo is clearly not attacking him.

      As far as atheist Republicans, I have come across a great many atheists who support the Republican party.

      That said, there is a definite slant in America for people on the right to be religious, something you don't see in other western countries, at least to that degree.

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    2. Robert Price is one such atheist Republican.

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    3. I'm not sure a defense of Massimo is called for since Nix is clearly agreeing with him.

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  2. >“If by ‘secular argument,’ you mean ‘a belief based on personal feelings,’ then, sure, there’s a secular argument against abortion. There could be a ‘secular’ argument against puppies, in that case. If you’re using ‘secular’ to mean ‘a logical, science-based, or rational’ belief, then no, there is no ‘secular argument’ against abortion. The supposed ‘secular arguments’ against abortion are rooted in misogyny, a lack of understanding of science, and religious overtones.”

    Ain't entryism great?

    It's not that overall, the secular case against abortion is unconvincing. It's that there's *literally no argument* that even prima facie could give one pause. Critical thinking at its apogee.

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  3. I agree with Paul Krugman that today's Republican Party is basically a religious cult* (especially regarding it's data-rejecting beliefs about economics, but also on abortion). So anyone who aligns with it, especially at the CPAC venue, cannot claim to represent the nonreligious (or the rational).

    * nytimes.com/2013/09/09/opinion/krugman-the-wonk-gap.html

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    1. Not believing in gods, ala an 'atheist', does not mean you don't believe in a religion, dogma or cult

      Regardless of what the republicans may or may not be, there is nothing in their charter that says "you must believe in a god to be a republican" ... and ditto there is nothing that says you must agree with republicans on all issues.

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    2. Thats a good point. An atheist can have beliefs in the supernatural, or whatever one calls beliefs that reject data and facts (like David Silverman).

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  4. I am still not sure David Silverman's comparison of abortion rights being not as clear cut as right to die is very apt. There are secular arguments against the right to die too (some more convincing than the ones against abortion I would say. See what Alonzo Fyfe has to say about the risk of insurance companies or governments promoting euthanasia to cut through end of life care costs, or the fact that your death is going to negatively impact people other that yourself...)

    There are also secular arguments against same-sex marriage too (changing society's structures and symbolic representations, unknown impact on children's development, yada principle of precaution should be applied on societal issues yada... I am not convinced but I can see where it comes from and it is strictly secular)

    You can point to countries with no separation of church and state (England, Belgium,...) and where the government gives official recognition to some religions but not others (seven or eight in Belgium if I remember correctly) and which suffer little to no ill effect. I am not convinced either, but hey, once again I have heard secular arguments for those situations ("Government intervention keeps religions under control") You can also point to France with a very secular conception of government which handle some problems less than ideally (anti-Burga laws, hijab controversies,...)

    You can also conceive some very poor and unconvincing secular arguments for segregation.

    The people outraged by David Silverman's quote that I have read ((Greta Christina and some others) were not disagreeing with the fact that there are secular arguments against abortion but with the singling out of abortion among other ethical issues when the same thing could have been said about any of the three other issues he cited...

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    1. Perhaps we can read Silverman as saying that the question of whether abortion is *intrinsically* wrong is less clear cut than the questions of whether assisted suicide or gay marriage are *intrinsically* wrong.

      The secular arguments you mentioned against the latter two issues are largely empirical in nature - they say that enacting certain policies *might* have various unpleasant consequences. The implication appears to be that, if it weren't for these unfortunate consequences, there would be nothing intrinsically wrong with gay marriage (or assisted suicide) itself. In the case of abortion, however, there are secular arguments that the act of killing a fetus is not significantly different from, say, killing a newborn baby, and therefore one is intrinsically wrong to the same extent as the other (barring certain extreme situations).

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    2. I am afraid I am a consequentialist and I have trouble parsing what you mean by "intrinsically wrong".

      I could also say that getting rid of a fetus is not significantly different from, say, getting rid of a tumor...

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    3. Jean-Nicolas and C both:

      Really great analysis from each of you!

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    4. >>I am afraid I am a consequentialist and I have trouble parsing what you mean by "intrinsically wrong".

      I mean it is wrong regardless of its consequences. As a consequentialist, you *must* understand what that means, otherwise you have no way of ranking the consequences of one action as "better" than the other. Even good old J. S. Mill had to argue that happiness was the sole "instrinsic good" in order to claim that an action is right if it maximizes overall happiness.

      >>I could also say that getting rid of a fetus is not significantly different from, say, getting rid of a tumor...

      Well, I think comparing a fetus to a newborn has more prima facie plausibility than comparing a fetus to a tumor, but I'm not going to get deeper into that discussion since I don't think this is the place to wade into the substance of abortion arguments.

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    5. >Jean-Nicolas Denonne: "I could also say that getting rid of a fetus is not significantly different from, say, getting rid of a tumor...."<

      Seems that in at least one very substantial and important way "getting rid of a fetus" is very significantly different from "getting rid of a tumor", i.e., the former is a genetically distinct entity whereas the latter is little more than a diseased replica of, but otherwise genetically identical to, the 39-odd trillion other cells in the woman's body. Even apart from the potentialities of each collection.

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  5. I agree on all counts - this should be a no-brainer. But since this is the first place I've read about this, I'm confused by one part of the story. How exactly is Silverman guilty of associating atheism with liberalism/progressivism? From the details of the story, it sounds like he was doing the exact opposite - he's the one who went to CPAC, who admitted to having a number of "conservative" positions, and who said the democrats are too conservative for him. I got the impression from your post that he was engaged in some kind of atheist outreach to conservatives, whereas his critics - Moglia and Alquist - were the ones guilty of associating atheism with progressivism.

    This isn't mean to be a substantive point of disagreement - I'm just confused by the details of the story.

    >>as it's today, no sane atheist could vote Republican...Today It's practically impossible to think about an atheist Republican. An atheist Republican seems like an oxymoron.

    Not true at all. Pretty much anybody who is obscenely rich and powerful under the current system and wants to keep that money and power has reason to vote Republican (not that the Democrats would do much to change the status quo, as Massimo said in his post).

    The media tends to focus on the cultural aspects of the Republican party, but in reality, the driving force keeping the party afloat is support by big business.

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    1. Good point, C. I think you're right, and I'm not sure where Massimo gets the idea that David Silverman is making the mistake of associating atheism with political issues.

      Sure, he's representing atheism at a convservative convention, but that's just trying to introduce his organisation to a new demographic, not associating atheism with politics.

      Also good points about sane Republican atheists. Massimo was being hyperbolic. I would agree with Massimo that no sane atheist could be satisfied that the Republican party is the only financially attractive choice for them.

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  6. Hi Massimo,

    I find precisely nothing to object to in your post, which seems to me obviously true.

    Great post, well expressed. At one point I thought I was going to have a nitpicking opportunity (where I thought you meant that there is no connection between atheism and any political position) but then you later clarified it (where you say that there is a connection between atheism and separation of church and state and the rights of unbelievers).

    While I tend to agree with the values of the Skepchicks and PZ Myerses of the world, I do cringe when they try to present atheism as being more than a disbelief in God. They are very hostile and dismissive of dissenting opinion, so even though I usually agree with their views I find I cannot consider myself to be one of them.

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  7. I'm just a truest and think guns kill, freedom is right, and God is equal or just another name for you, me, the atheists, the secularists, the left the right the in between, and that One is truly All. = is free

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  8. Atheism is a philosophical tenet, but the concept of religious bigotry is a political/moral concept. Repudiating or fighting religious bigotry is progressive. Disliking or disapproving of someone is a misleading definition of bigotry. Mind reading is never evidence.

    There, all the conceptual problems are solved. That just leaves us all the empirical questions to answer.

    But, why does anyone think that an empirical science of morality would be any less difficult or contentious or incomplete than any other science? I'm not sure the right answers have contributed anything at all.

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  9. Has this woman ever read Don Marquis's argument against abortion? There are zero religious premises, and zero empirical premises that could be attacked by simply showing him the relevant science. Does it succeed? I'm not sure. But its failure doesn't stem from its being religiously grounded or empirically misinformed.

    That she would simply ignore one of the most influential secular arguments against abortion speaks to just how much thinking she's done on the subject.

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    1. I would point out that the fact his argument doesn't consider female autonomy over her body is misogynistic.

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  10. Massimo, you're behind the curve! With Plusers, the "m-word" is "mansplaining."

    Otherwise, totally agreed. Silverman's claim that conservativism is chock full of atheists? I haven't laughed that much over a nutty claim, in some ways, since Markos of Daily Kos claimed the CIA was chock full of secret liberals.

    Now, there are conservative atheists. Leading Jesus Mythicist Robert M. Price is a paleoconservative who thinks Obama should be impeached. But conservative atheists aren't that common.

    Libertarian atheists? That's another matter. Shermer, Penn/Teller, Brian Dunning et al are, while more known as "skeptics" rather than "atheists," just the lead tide of a vast number of such, contra claims of the likes of PZ Myers otherwise.

    As for politics? I've voted Green for president, at least, every election this century.

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    1. Well, yeah, libertarians. That's the point! There is no viable libertarian party, so many libertarians vote conservative. That's what Silverman means when he says that there are conservative atheists.

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    2. I'm not sure that is what Silverman means. And, until he actually shows up at a Libertarian Party convention (even if it's not "viable," it exists) I'm not going make that assumption, DM.

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    3. I suppose it isn't what Silverman means, in that he is not referring only to libertarian atheists but also the minority of non-libertarian conservative atheists.

      I would not be too surprised to see Silverman at a Libertarian convention. In fact, I would not be surprised if American Atheists had already attended such. I just don't think it would be news because atheism is quite common among libertarians (a majority, perhaps?).

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    4. Some sort of nontheism is likely at least a plurality position among libertarians, yes. The Ron/Rand Paul types I consider semi-libertarians.

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  11. While I do agree wiith Dr. Pigliucci that being an atheist does not tie one to a particular political position (see the political and economic philosopher John N. Gray http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_N._Gray), I think a lot of confusion stems from atheism's ties to the Enlightenment tradition and the view that today's atheists have of it.

    Those considered atheists (and they were not atheists in the contemporary sense that we know today, but were deemed atheists because some believed in different Gods) often wrote about freedom from domination and exploitation by other authorities, not merely ecclesiastical ones.

    Remember one of the main problems with religion is not whether the doctrines or practices are true or not. They can be true and would still face the same problem. They face the same problem because these doctrines and practices are established through an appeal to a non-existent authority. While political authorities do exist, their failure to meet the burden of proof in the exercise of such power and why they ought to have it gives us a compelling argument for their non-existence (i.e. dismantling).

    If you're even looking at this from the perspective of anarchism, No Masters quickly follows from No Gods (that's if you want to be a consistent atheist).

    However, in practice no one is that consistent. The Enlightenment philosophers were not either. Nietzsche and Schopenhauer were very misogynistic. Many of the enlightenment philosophers (Hume, Locke) laid the ground work for scientific racism which found its full expression in Kant (a philosopher accused of atheism due to his moral philosophy).

    So maybe we can look at the argument in a different light. Not that being an atheist ties you to progressive politics, but that good politics follows from being a consistent/good atheist.

    I'm interested to hear your response on this recasting.

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  12. Massimo, like others here, I follow and agree with your views on this matter. I also appreciate your frustration when you write, "pretty much the only social issues that ought to unite every atheist are the separation of Church and State and the rights of unbelievers." At the same time, you acknowledge that much of the NA "movement" embraces a broader agenda: ". . . recognize that there are libertarian atheists, and conservative atheists, and atheists who don’t give a damn about gun control, or women’s rights, or whatever it is you think should be at the top of the agenda . . . ." And so, part of the problem seems to be that some who identify themselves as atheists disagree over what role atheism should take in approaching secular matters. Or, as Simon During puts it: "Is absolute secularity conceivable? The question arises from the paradoxical intuition that the secularization thesis is simultaneously both right and muddled." Underlying much of the controversy of NA is the question: does it follow that one's position as an atheist should extend to and should define "the secular perspective" and, if so, how should it proceed? Or, again, as During writes, "Where . . . might we find a radically secular thought sufficiently rich to take good account of our actual conditions of existence?" To which many in the NA movement might answer, "Us." And yet the dissension within their own ranks would suggest otherwise. For those interested in During's article, it is here: http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2013/07/01/is-absolute-secularity-conceivable/

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  13. Nix,

    > according to him atheism is not supposed to be linked to liberalism or Democrats <

    And that is correct. But the common ground, again, is Church-State and rights of unbelievers, not any of the other things Dave mentioned in the interview.

    > He is trying to create a conservative space that will be OK to someone to be an Atheist and also be in favor of military interventions, guns, etc or not. <

    But the problem is that when he says — as president of AA — that he is in favor or guns or the military he is going to piss off progressive atheists, like myself.

    Ian,

    > It's not that overall, the secular case against abortion is unconvincing. It's that there's *literally no argument* that even prima facie could give one pause. Critical thinking at its apogee. <

    Precisely.

    Robin,

    > I am not sure a defense of David Silverman is called for since Massimo is clearly not attacking him. <

    I’m not “attacking” him, but I am criticizing for bringing up, as president of AA, political issues that don’t belong to atheism.

    C,

    > he's the one who went to CPAC, who admitted to having a number of "conservative" positions, and who said the democrats are too conservative for him. <

    As I mentioned above, Dave is welcome to his political positions, but if he expresses them in his role of president of AA he’s liable to get his base pissed. Sure enough, I’ve heard from members of AA who really didn’t like his comments about the military, guns, etc.

    > his critics - Moglia and Alquist - were the ones guilty of associating atheism with progressivism <

    Yes, that is indeed the case.

    > Perhaps we can read Silverman as saying that the question of whether abortion is *intrinsically* wrong is less clear cut than the questions of whether assisted suicide or gay marriage are *intrinsically* wrong. <

    I don’t go for “intrinsically” almost anything. I think he was saying that abortion is morally more problematic than the ethical slam dunks that are gay rights and assisted suicide. And I agree. Even a strong supporter of women’s rights to control their body — such as me — has to admit that abortion is morally problematic, especially in late stages and when there are no special circumstances concerning the health of the mother.

    > there are secular arguments that the act of killing a fetus is not significantly different from, say, killing a newborn baby, and therefore one is intrinsically wrong to the same extent as the other <

    If you drop the “intrinsically” from that sentence we completely agree.

    Andres,

    > Has this woman ever read Don Marquis's argument against abortion? <

    Apparently not. For the intellectually curious, here it is:
    http://faculty.polytechnic.org/gfeldmeth/45.marquis.pdf

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    1. Hi Massimo,

      "But the problem is that when he says — as president of AA — that he is in favor or guns or the military he is going to piss off progressive atheists, like myself."

      I didn't realise you were pissed off with him! I'm not sure there's much cause for that. It seems to me that he was using himself as an example of an atheist with some conservative values as a way of showing that atheism and conservatism need not necessarily be antagonistic. He was not making a link between his conservative views and his atheism or representing his views as those of American Atheists so I have no problem with him doing this.

      >Even a strong supporter of women’s rights to control their body — such as me — has to admit that abortion is morally problematic, especially in late stages and when there are no special circumstances concerning the health of the mother.<

      I would say it is morally problematic prima facie, but I'm not sure that it is after analysis. I really do think that the mother's right to autonomy is paramount. There may be regrettable consequences of a late-term abortion but it is not problematic in the sense that there should be any doubt about whether the mother has a right to abort.

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  14. Jean-Nicolas,

    > There are secular arguments against the right to die too … There are also secular arguments against same-sex marriage too <

    Indeed, but evidently both Dave and I think that those are far less convincing than the ones pertinent to abortion.

    > You can point to countries with no separation of church and state (England, Belgium,...) and where the government gives official recognition to some religions but not others (seven or eight in Belgium if I remember correctly) and which suffer little to no ill effect. <

    That’s a whole different, and interesting, discussion. I would argue that in those countries societies are functionally post-religious, very much unlike the American one.

    > The people outraged by David Silverman's quote that I have read (Greta Christina and some others) were not disagreeing with the fact that there are secular arguments against abortion but with the singling out of abortion among other ethical issues when the same thing could have been said about any of the three other issues he cited <

    Well, the quote from Moglia, approved by Ahlquist, was to the effect that some of Dave’s critics just don’t think there are any rational secular arguments against abortion. Greta seems to have a more nuanced position, but again, there are very solid philosophical / moral reasons to “single out” abortion over gay rights and other issues. No need to be paranoid about Dave being a crypto-misogynist.

    > I am afraid I am a consequentialist and I have trouble parsing what you mean by "intrinsically wrong”. <

    As you can see above, I agree, though I’m no consequentialist myself.

    > I could also say that getting rid of a fetus is not significantly different from, say, getting rid of a tumor… <

    Seriously? I very strongly disagree. Tumors don’t feel pain, nor — late during their gestation — are they essentially the same as a newborn baby in any ethically relevant respect.

    Doubt,

    > So maybe we can look at the argument in a different light. Not that being an atheist ties you to progressive politics, but that good politics follows from being a consistent/good atheist. <

    Interesting analysis, but I disagree. One can very consistently be an atheist and a progressive, anarchist or libertarian, and I would wager also a traditional conservative. I simply don’t see the logical connection between rejecting the idea of the supernatural and any given political position (except Church-State and rights of unbelievers). Of course, as a matter of fact, most atheists in the US are progressive or libertarian, but that’s an accident of sociological history, not a necessary connection to atheism.

    Thomas,

    > Underlying much of the controversy of NA is the question: does it follow that one's position as an atheist should extend to and should define "the secular perspective" and, if so, how should it proceed? <

    We’ve had an answer to that, for a long time: secular humanism — which is precisely the combination of rejection of the supernatural and embracing of liberal progressivism that PZ, Greta et al. are talking about.

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    1. Exactly, on your reply to Doubt. As noted above, Robert M. Price is consistent in both his atheism and his call for Obama to be impeached. I've seen him make this call more than once on his Facebook feed.

      On Massimo's response to Thomas, well, you have to remove Gnus', and even more, the younger Plusers, sense of tribalism, a tribalism that, in my opinion, rivals the Religious Right. THEN you'll have secular humanism.

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    3. Re: JJ Ramsey's post - I read GC's reply as well, and also Stephanie Zvan's. "Nuanced" is not the word I'd used to describe it, but then I don't think Greta Christina has exactly been a nuanced thinker for the last several years now. Christina and Zvan rehash the basic "social justice warrior" talking point, that basically they're arguing from a position of being stakeholders in the issue (in this case, abortion) and that Massimo as a male is basically arguing from a kind of intellectual dilettantism. (And if you delve into the comments section, the rhetoric gets even more anti-intellectual than that.) For them, the party line that they lay down on the subject as women goes, and if you're a male, your only place as an "ally" is to repeat that line exactly. Otherwise, you're not an "ally", which is as good as being an enemy.

      The sad thing is, Greta Christina was once a more nuanced thinker, and I think her essay "So-Called “Litmus Tests”: Skepticism and Social Justice" is one of the better pieces of writing about the relationship between skepticism and political issues. Ironically, it was written write around the time she was transitioning to full-bore social justice warrior, and has since taken on a whole lot of thoughtless positions and rhetoric that are a 180 degrees from the spirit of that essay. She ought to go back and read her own writing.

      As to GC and Zvan's strawman, I think all Massimo has said is that there's a difference between atheist activism (which is a fairly narrow set of topics) and pro-choice activism. I don't think he said anywhere that they should drop pro-choice activism, nor even that they should make atheist activism their priority. Yet they're all too ready to rhetorically paint him as a mansplainer who's trying to tell them what their political priorities should be.

      But once these people have a "Witch of the Week" in their sights, there's seemingly no end to it. At least until they find another witch next week.

      Delete
    4. "One can very consistently be an atheist and a progressive, anarchist or libertarian, and I would wager also a traditional conservative."

      I think the latter case is one where "in theory" runs up against facts on the ground. True, somebody could be traditional social conservative and at the same time an atheist, and I'm sure that there are some who fit that description out there. (In fact, they're definitely the kind of people that Silverman was trying to recruit.) But on the other hand, I think if there was a decline in religiosity in the US, one would also see a decline in traditional conservatism (though probably not libertarian conservatism), as in practice, social conservatism in the US is so often the political expression of strong religiosity, to the point where it's hard to separate the two.

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  15. On the tumor comparison, I was comparing them to embryos and fetuses, not newborns, trying to point out that making those sort of comparisons does not strike me as that useful.

    On the matter of pain, I do not see it as such a strong argument. I could use the same argument for abortion, saying that pregnancy and delivery can be painful, indeed. We also do not tend to give the same moral value to pain depending on the organism experiencing it (lab animals, livestock, also, insects compared to mamals,...)

    I would tend to agree with you on the issues of same-sex marriage but certainly not for right to die issues which are certainly no slam-dunk for me...

    Interesting read (not on the philosophical level but on the context in which those reactions arose): http://freethoughtblogs.com/almostdiamonds/2014/03/13/you-made-your-bed-now-burn-in-it/

    A bit rambling but not as incendiary as the title suggest.

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    1. These are all good points, but they don't necessarily show that the arguments against abortion are bad. In fact, I think they show precisely why the abortion debate is complicated.

      For example, the problem with the embryo/fetus/newborn argument is a sorites problem. Let's assume that an embryo has no morally significant status and that a newborn baby does. A fetus is somewhere in between. Where and how do we draw a principled line on when a developing human achieves a morally significant status? I think it's hard to say, and I think reasonable people can disagree on where that line is.

      Concerning the pain of the mother's pregnancy, this doesn't show that we should therefore disregard the fetus's pain. Instead, it shows that we're caught in a difficult moral situation, because we have to weigh the pain of one "person" (for lack of a better term) against another.

      Similarly, you point out that we don't attribute much moral significance to the pain experienced by some animals. But many people (especially utilitarians) would reply that this is a kind of moral hypocrisy, and that we *should* be concerned about the pain of all creatures.

      For the record, I'm pro-choice, so I'm not putting up these arguments to vindicate pro-lifers. I'm just pointing out that there are reasonable considerations on both sides of the argument.

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    2. I am not saying that it is not complicated, just that it is not more complicated than other issues cited by Silverman (mostly right to die but also school prayer)

      On the pain issue, I would actually lean to the side of the utilitarians but I was under the impression that Massimo most definitely does not, so I was a bit surprised by his argument and that is why I probed for more.

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    3. C, see Peter Singer on infanticide. Utilitarians do not consider it intrinsically wrong beyond consequences and understand that lines must be drawn for rules/laws to exist & have utility. Btw, "pro-lifers" are more anti-choice than pro-life if they're for limiting choices via bans, social punishments, misinformation, etc. than for maximizing numbers of lives.

      3 things that make Sarah Moglia's response understandable & rational:
      1. We have considerations against abortion/dogcare or could make arguments against some cases of them. We may prefer a world w/out unwanted pregnancies or the expenses & chores of dogcare. The existence of such considerations, preferences & case-specific arguments does not negate what Moglia meant: we do not have an argument against abortion/puppy-caretaking altogether, as if it were intrinsically wrong, a sin, or would rarely have redeeming value & should therefore be banned or made unlikely at great costs w/ widespread condemnation.
      2. The only secular arguments that I know of against abortion altogether are ones that ignore, minimize, or misrepresent effects on women and other sentient beings. Perhaps a more precise version of Moglia's characterization of such arguments is that they come from people being dogmatic, ignorant, or effectively uncaring about the real lives of women or perceived "others"/strangers, as the arguers do not take into account, or in most cases even seek, data about effects of abortion or of they policies they advocate.
      3. Context matters, as do language games (Wittgenstein). CPAC is for political action and prefers the GOP to the Dems. The GOP has acted in accordance to its anti-choice platform. Compared to the context of a politically neutral encyclopedia or a blog for rationality or logic, discussing abortion in popular media in relation to CPAC is more likely to lead to or be conflated w/ inferences about abortion bans. Along w/ 1 & 2 above, 3 makes what Silverman said more likely to be counterproductive to the pro-choice & pro-rationality movements.

      Related to the 2nd point: arguments as soldiers, not based on rationality or reality-tracking
      Some people want abortion & gay marriage banned to increase their chances of having more kin or ingroup members, as in the case of religions & states being likely to promote their pop. growth or as suggested by the finding that parents are more likely than non-parents to oppose homosexuality. There are people who oppose homosexuality (or who think its a choice) b/c they had been sexually assaulted by a member of the same sex (who was heterosexual). Secular & religious arguments for prohibitions of abortion, homosexuality, etc. are used in hopes of personal/ingroup gain/retribution/loss-prevention. Such prohibitions tend to be blunt tools where more precise ones are available and less wasteful or harmful.

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  16. Massimo: "We’ve had an answer to that, for a long time: secular humanism — which is precisely the combination of rejection of the supernatural and embracing of liberal progressivism that PZ, Greta et al. are talking about."

    Except that secular humanists, many of them atheists, seem to feel the need to address the fervor, for lack of a better word, of "neo-atheists" and to describe it as a "movement."
    So, what interests me in this context is not that a person describes himself as an atheist, but what might underlay something described as a movement. There is surely some cart and horse entanglement here. And yet the subject continues to generate controversy. See for example this: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/03/ghost-atheist-feast-was-nietzsche-right-about-religion

    With due respect, I suspect that NA is something more than the failure of some to believe that secular humanism adequately covers their concerns.

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  17. One other note: Even liberal atheists, who might be called secular humanists without us batting an eyelash, can be pro-life.

    Nat Hentoff comes immediately to mind, though I am more and more inclined to call him a libertarian, not a liberal.

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  18. Sorry, Massimo. I read your original post as saying that Silverman was guilty of linking atheism specifically to *progressivism*. Upon re-reading it, I see that you said he was guilty of linking atheism to "to one political position or another", not to progressivism or liberalism in particular. So that clears up my confusion on that matter.

    (For the record, I *don't* think he was linking atheism with any political ideology. Rather, I think he was doing the exact opposite - by showing that even the president of the AA can agree with conservatives on some issues and disagree with liberals on others, he was demonstrating by example that atheism doesn't determine political ideology.)

    >>I don’t go for “intrinsically” almost anything.

    By "intrinsically wrong" I simply meant "not wrong for consequentialist reasons." This was in contrast to the arguments Jean-Nicolas mentioned against same-sex marriage and assisted-suicide, which were explicitly consequentialist in nature.

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  19. I was very pleased with this article. While I do find myself, more often than not, on the side of the progressives, it most certainly does not follow that my Humanism is necessarily, politically progressive. I like to consider myself a pragmatic social democrat (a la Sidney Hook) with transnational tendencies, and I most certainly believe that there is room to work together with libertarians and conservatives in advancing our democracy. However; I am firmly opposed to certain ideologies that have made themselves necessary components of progressivism (postmodernism, historicism, the patriarchy hypothesis, and online "consensus by banning") as these ideologies - when advanced by atheists - seem to make non-belief a set of dogmatic political and metaphysical principles. This approach by some progressives seems to me to be antithetical to Humanism, as these ideologies either deny the possibility of reliable (ethical) knowledge, or are rooted in foundational metaphysics that are no different from religion (If 'social constructivism' is sufficient to grant ontological status to patriarchy, doesn't it follow that God can exist as a social construct as well?).

    Essentially, I think that there is a serious lack of rigorous philosophy being proffered within Humanism these days, and we cannot allow charlatans and snake oil salesmen to use their percieved authority* to manipulate and control people in the movement.

    *Many new age leaders, religious apologists, etc. will employ their credentials to gain legitimacy among followers, even if those credentials are inappropriate (Your criticism of evolution is not likely to be taken seriously if your PhD is in Performing Arts). If we more skeptical Humanists are aware of this phenomenon, why are we taking philosophy advice from a Historian that dabbles in formal logic and a biologist who could be the poster child for scientism and the tu quoque fallacy?

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    1. Indeed, indeed. Part of what I dislike about "Gnu" Atheists and even more, their younger offshoot, the "Plusers," is exactly this.

      On the "biologist ... poster child," you have to be more specific: Coyne or Myers? And, I'm not sure whom you're referencing on the historian.

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    2. PZ Meyers and Richard Carrier. That being said, I would be happy to level this criticism at any proponent of "Atheism +" and its relatives.

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  20. I was always under the impression that the atheist community and atheist activism are what people are talking about rather than atheism. Nothing follows from atheism, not even church and state separation issues. And the first two terms could be about virtually anything.

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  21. Sean: "I was always under the impression that the atheist community and atheist activism are what people are talking about rather than atheism. Nothing follows from atheism, not even church and state separation issues."

    Same from my POV; otherwise, we are just stringing pots and pans to something and commenting on the resultant noise. Overreach is overreach. So, I still don't know why the chicken decided to cross the road or what he had in mind. My suspicion is that it is he didn't know or did, but its venality was dressed up for the occasion. Just following certain proclivities and biases to the accompaniment of a tin drum.

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  22. Do you realize that you just told women, all women, that they should approach abortion, a procedure you will never have, as a difficult and emotional step? You just told us all how we should feel about our decisions.

    Pretending you know what you are talking about can be harmful.

    My abortion was not a difficult or emotional step. The pregnancy was. The abortion was easy. It was relief. There was no dilemma. There was no angsty time period of decision making. No pearl clutching.

    Telling us how we should feel is hubris at its best. And it moves the discussion to a murky realm instead of the clear subject it should be: the woman's control of her own body.

    Please, stop making the entire situation worse for us all.

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    1. Moral philosophers make judgments about what feelings are appropriate or inappropriate in various situations all the time. It's not unique to the topic of abortion or to decisions only made by women.

      If you don't like people arguing about what other people should or shouldn't feel, or what they should or shouldn't do, it sounds like you just don't like moral philosophy very much.

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    2. This is very wrong. Feelings are not morally relevant. How you act on them is.

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    3. I have no problems with people sitting around expounding on the whys and wherefores of life. I have huge, HUGE problems with a man judging how I should feel and act in situations he knows nothing about, and then ending with a paragraph saying that no one dare judge him for his words.

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    4. Hi Jean-Nicolas,

      >This is very wrong. Feelings are not morally relevant. How you act on them is.<

      Would you mind clarifying this? It seems to me that feelings are essential to morality. Even consequentialism is rooted in the feeling that we should try to maximise well-being for all. Without these moral intuitions (which I would call feelings) morality is entirely meaningless.

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    5. Hi frogmistress,

      >I have huge, HUGE problems with a man judging how I should feel and act in situations he knows nothing about<

      Would you feel differently if he were a woman who did know something about the situation? It seems to me that the problem is judging, not who Massimo is. And I agree that he shouldn't judge you, but I'm not sure that he meant what he said in the way you interpreted it (although I can see how you could take it thus).

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    6. A pro-lifer would respond, what about the fetus' body? I'm not a pro-lifer, but, per Don Marquis' article mentioned above, this is a legitimate counterstatement.

      In fact, and yes, he's a man, but I agree with Ted Rall's statement:

      "Abortion is murder. In my view women have — and ought to continue to have — the right to murder their unborn babies. Each abortion is a tragedy, some necessary and others not, and all of them are murder."

      I see no other way to approach this issue. It's a moral Gordian knot.

      On Marquis, his biggest failure is that he excludes purely utilitarian approaches to abortion. That said, few pro-choicers are willing to go down that road.

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    7. >>This is very wrong. Feelings are not morally relevant. How you act on them is.

      Well, you're entitled to that opinion. And I think I understand your motivation for the position - it's natural to think that we can't help or control the way we react emotionally to things, so emotions shouldn't be subject to moral evaluation. However, you should realize that, in addition to disagreeing with many modern moral philosophers (such as Allan Gibbard and Tim Scanlon), you're also disagreeing with common sense (in everyday life, we constantly judging people for their emotional reactions. Somebody who laughs and takes pleasure in watching a video of a helpless kid getting bullied would probably be considered a jerk by most people).

      To reiterate, the claim that emotions shouldn't be subject to moral evaluation is a viable position to take, but that's a controversial claim that deserves to be supported by some kind of argument instead of just baldly asserted as if it's common sense.

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  23. "You like progressive politics and are not religious? Great, join the American Humanist Association, or the local chapter of the Ethical Union (though they, bizarrely, do call themselves a secular religion — an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one)."

    This is incorrect. Ethical Culture describes itself as a religion, pure and simple. It does not claim to be secular, although it is secularist. I admit that the idea of a Humanist religion is difficult to grasp given today's use of the term "religion", but 140 years ago, when Ethical Culture was founded, it seemed a much more normal use of words.

    On the substantive issue, I think it pretty clear that, given the current political climate around reproductive rights, and the increasing infringement on those rights by many groups and individuals represented *at CPAC*, it was at least unwise and contextually myopic for Silverman to make the statement he did. Either he was signalling something about his organization's priorities or he is very politically naive. Neither is a good thing for a leader of a national organization to be doing.

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  24. "To decide to get an abortion is always (or, at least, should always be) a very difficult and emotional step, precisely because it has significant ethical consequences." <--This is sexist. How I feel about my health care is not your concern. To assume that one must agonize over a decision because a potential proto-person is occupying my internal organs is wrong. We don't demand that people provide their doctors with reasons why they deserve to not donate a kidney, or blood, or bone marrow to an adult person who would die without it. Why must a pregnant person justify (or feel angst about) their decision to deny their organs and tissues to a collection of cells that has never been a person?

    -- The vast majority of abortions are performed while the pregnancy is a collection of barely differentiated cells. What are the significant ethical consequences of that? How are they more significant than say, my right to fly to Europe in nine months, or continue to work a hazardous job, or refuse to donate a kidney to a family member?

    "To decide to get [a child] is always (or, at least, should always be) a very difficult and emotional step, precisely because it has significant ethical consequences."

    -- Children do have significant ethical consequences. They require resources, they require love, they require a commitment to provide these things for two, sometimes three, decades. Sometimes longer. A child will grow up to need their own housing, their own job, their own safe drinking water, resources that are in short supply in many places. Those resources are taken from other systems, to the detriment of those systems.

    "To decide to get [a vasectomy] is always (or, at least, should always be) a very difficult and emotional step, precisely because it has significant ethical consequences."

    -- Why? Who is harmed by a person's choice not to procreate? (no one.) Do we owe our significant others our functioning reproductive organs? (obviously not.) Do we owe them children against our own expressed wishes? (again, obviously not)

    "To decide to [donate sperm] is always (or, at least, should always be) a very difficult and emotional step, precisely because it has significant ethical consequences."

    -- Again, this is a choice with significant ethical consequences. Do children have the right to know who their biological parents are? Do you have the right to not know your biological children? What if you have a genetic disorder or family history of illness, violence, or ugliness? Does a donor owe future genetic offspring recompense for providing genetic material which diminishes the offspring's quality of life?

    "To decide to get [a cat] is always (or, at least, should always be) a very difficult and emotional step, precisely because it has significant ethical consequences."

    -- Indoor? Outdoor? What if you become unable to care for it in the future? Can you adopt a cat without accounting for it's care in the event of your death? How much time and money is the correct amount to spend on a sick or terminally ill cat before humane euthanasia? What if the cat is destructive? Aggressive? What if the cat hurts somebody?

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    1. Really? The "right" to fly to Europe in nine months is of more value than terminating a pregnancy?

      I suggest Norplant, or better yet, tubal ligation.

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  25. It seems fairly obvious that atheism can go with any political position. Still it does not make sense for an atheist to support any political party or movement. Supporting a party that would, given free reign, make it so that you personally would not be able to hold office or maybe even find work is just odd. Yes, same views on economic policy yadda yadda, but some things should be deal-breakers.

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    1. What party do you think would do that?

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    2. Admittedly I am not in a country nor a citizen of a country where that is really an issue, but I am given to understand that in many places in the USA it is pretty much career suicide to come out as an atheist. There may be some politicians who consider that situation okay to varying degrees and other politicians who don't.

      And ultimately, it is all a question of moving the Overton window. If you constantly vote a party dominated by obsessively religious people into power, the situation for out atheists will deteriorate. If you constantly vote a secular party into power, it will improve.

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  26. Great piece! Thanks so much. Sadly, I must say, it takes courage to write something like this because people will likely attack you for it...but they don't really matter so continue to press on. The 'atheist community' is in such a sorry state.

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  27. There was nothing difficult or emotional about my abortion. I didn't feel any sadness or regret. I didn't struggle with the decision because it had been made long before the unintended pregnancy even occurred. I've always known what I would do if my birth control failed. I wasn't thrilled that my birth control had failed, but I wasn't the least bit troubled by abortion itself. I was relieved that it was available as a backup.

    But I'm so glad that there's a man here to tell me what emotions I should or shouldn't be experiencing when about making decisions about my body and future.

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    1. As far as I know, the people who experience regret or emotional trauma after having an abortion do so because they were raised to believe it is wrong; and since the people around them believe it is wrong, they don't have any emotional support, only judgment.

      But plenty of pro-life women would tell you the exact same thing, that abortions cause trauma. It has little to do with gender. It's a misleading concept no matter who espouses it.

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  28. To Frogmistress, enuma and ---,

    You have made some good points. I agree that it is wrong to suggest that having an abortion should necessarily be something you struggle with.

    However, I really don't care for the way in which your point was made. In particular, the fact that Massimo is a man who will never have an abortion does not, in my view, mean that he cannot have an opinion on the subject. His arguments should be attacked on their merits and not based on who he is.

    I must admit I am also a man and will never have an abortion, so presumably you don't care what I think. But in any case, I do think there's a way to reconcile the two viewpoints. I think that abortion is a serious question that demands a lot of thought if only to sort out conflicting instincts about right and wrong - the feeling that the life of the unborn is valuable and the feeling that the autonomy of the mother is valuable. Is morality about protecting life or well-being? Is human life sacred and if so, what constitutes human life?

    That said, once this conflict has been resolved (in favour of the mother's autonomy, hopefully), the actual act of abortion need not be troubling. If you already know that you are strongly pro-choice, and in particular if you do not view an embryo as a person, I see no reason why making that choice should be difficult if you find yourself with an unwanted pregnancy. I assume you found having an abortion to be untraumatic because you had long ago thought these issues through for yourself and came to the (correct) conclusion that autonomy is paramount and that an embryo is not a person.

    Hopefully Massimo would agree.

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    1. "once this conflict has been resolved"

      Precisely. The issue I take with Mr. Silverman's remarks are that he indicated that my right to bodily autonomy was not resolved within the atheist community but apparently someone's right to die is. How on earth do you make that case? What about terminally ill pregnant people? Do they have the right to die? Do they not have the right to end their pregnancy and spend their final weeks in relative comfort?

      Either I (as a person who can become pregnant) am a full person in the eyes of "big tent" atheism or I am not. If abortion is "less clear cut" than marriage equality or prayer in schools (neither of which affect anyone's bodily autonomy) then I am obviously not a full person in the eyes of the movement. This is upsetting. Extremely upsetting.

      I am an atheist, but that didn't affect my decisions on where I would apply to college, where I would seek employment, or my choice in doctors. You know what did affect these choices? My "rights" should I find myself harboring a fetus. They vary from state to state. They vary from hospital to hospital. They vary from campus to campus. They vary between organizations.

      A broken condom or missed pill in California is an inconvenience (who wants to spend 45 minutes at the pharmacy), in Texas it's a potential catastrophe (Texas: where even dead women can be compelled to carry fetuses).

      Hopefully Massimo and Dave would agree that the "lack of resolution" in this pervasive ongoing attack on my personhood sucks and that it has literally nothing to do with being inclined towards fiscally conservative governance.

      And when I see them both say so, often, loudly, and to all potential recruits we can move on to other "important" things (like bigfoot, chem-trails, and not having to swear on a bible to give testimony or serve in public office).

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    2. And I resent the implication that I've disregarded what Massimo's said because he is male. Nothing in my previous post indicated that.

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    3. "How on earth do you make that case?"

      Well, I don't believe in objective morality. I think morality is all about evolved instincts which make some things feel right or wrong. I think there is a very strong impulse to protect babies (and by extension, embryos), but also a strong impulse to value well-being (and by extension, freedom and autonomy). I think this conflict between values is at the heart of the abortion debate, and I think this conflict is stronger than it is in most other debates. That's the difference.

      Of course I am completely with you on choosing autonomy over embryos, but I do think it is appropriate to acknowledge that abortion is a uniquely controversial subject. If somebody else chooses embryos over autonomy, I'm not sure there's a well-principled way to show them to be incorrect, because I think that ultimately morality comes down to personal aesthetic judgments. So I'm a moral relativist with regard to abortion and all other moral issues, but I'm a principled moral relativist by which I mean that I will stand by my own moral preferences (e.g. pro-choice) and fight for them if necessary.

      "What about terminally ill pregnant people?"

      Well I would say they do have the right to die. You'd have to ask a pro-euthanasia pro-life atheist, I guess.

      "And I resent the implication that I've disregarded what Massimo's said because he is male."

      That's a fair comment. I should not have written one post to address you, Enuma and Frogmistress, but I was short of time. Apologies.

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  29. Of COURSE there are plenty of women who are pro-life. All you need to do is witness when the loony tunes come to college campuses or abortion clinics and shove stupid signs in everyone's faces. There will be a ton of women in those crazy crowds. They often outnumber the men. The last pro-life activist I got into an argument on the street with was an elderly lady surrounded by middle-aged and teenaged women and girls. There was only one dude that I remember, he was behind me calling me "stupid". They were all holding huge banners with pictures of cut up dead fetuses on them. I was on my lunch break. Hey, guess what I don't want to look at when I'm trying to eat lunch? If you said "cut up dead fetuses", then you may be right.

    On the more general issue of atheists and social justice: I'm gay. I'm legally discriminated against. I've been harassed, threatened and physically attacked. LGBT rights is dear to me, and despite that things aren't perfect yet, there have been a lot of social change and legal wins lately. Who made those happen? Was it a handful of atheist bloggers?

    Hardly. It was a coalition of people from various backgrounds including a LOT of religious people, working together. If you care about progressive social issues YOU SHOULD NOT TIE IT TO YOUR ATHEISM AND ALIENATE YOUR THEIST ALLIES.

    You can make all the arguments about atheism being morally superior to theism you want, but it won't change the fact that most of my allies are some kind of religious. That's because there are vastly more religious people in my country (the U.S.). And frankly the way the atheist movement on-line constantly devolves into drama and infighting whenever social issues come under discussion, I wouldn't have any faith in it to be able to change anything for the better, even if atheists were far more numerous.

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    1. There are plenty of pro-life people, both male and female, both religious and not, who are NOT "looney tunes." If that's your view of the pro-life movement overall, it's kind of sad.

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  30. I don't care for having abortion treated as some fascinating but ultimately abstract topic of discussion when my rights to my body are constantly being eroded away, so it's getting harder and harder to care if people think I'm being civil enough when making a point.

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    1. Then I don't recommend reading philosophy blogs, since philosophy generally approaches fascinating and important questions in a fairly abstract way.

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    2. I doubt that anybody here thinks of it as a fascinating and ultimately abstract topic.

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    3. enuma, I appreciate your concerns about having your body treated as an abstraction. Although I am a male, I think there is something parallel in the right-to-die issue and the way it is handled in the political sphere. I expect that many secular pro-lifers would also side against the right to die, or would allow it for very restricted cases. So Silverman is wrong to list this as a settled issue when abortion supposedly is not. Since I have personal experience with hereditary terminal neurodegenerative disease, it is hard to accept the abstractness of those discussions when I must contemplate the very real chance that I will someday be trapped in a condition of perpetual torture, and I will not have the physical ability to end it myself. On another level, though, all of us (and our bodies) are subjects for abstract discussion, and we are compelled to acquiesce to the format of those discussions in order to persuade others.

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    4. Hi Enuma,

      I understand, but this is a philosophy blog. This is where issues like abortion get analysed and debated. If you don't like to see this then I think there are other communities that would be more to your taste.

      However I'm not sure it's fair to say that abortion is treated as "fascinating but ultimately abstract". It is a topic of interest precisely just because it stirs strong emotions on both sides. I really do care that you have the right to an abortion, and I really do think you should be able to do that free from regret or shame. It's not just academic. The way women are treated in many parts of the world is appalling and disgraceful.

      But I don't think that appealing to emotions is terribly effective. You have a strong negative emotional reaction to the pro-life side, motivated by your personal experiences, while the other side has a strong negative emotional reaction to the pro-choice position because of imagery of aborted foetuses etc.

      It seems to me that the only hope to sort out which set of emotions should guide us is by relatively dispassionate analysis. If you find that distasteful then perhaps you shouldn't read it.

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    5. I completely agree with enuma's statement. The point is that the "pro-life" movement is an intellectual fraud without any rational basis. E.g., if Republicans in the House really wanted to reduce the type of abortions they talk about (after 20 weeks) they would make contraception freely available and women's clinics bountiful. But they don't.

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    6. I disagree. If you said the pro-life **political** movement, I'd agree. But, as a lot of Republicans who are selective about pope-quoting know or should know, folks like the Catholic Church, with a stance of both pro-life and anti-capital punishment, and with at least some emphasis on social justice issues, and with concerns about the effects of capitalism, are not intellectual frauds.

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  31. Goodness, I think the messenger has been shot. Anyone who's followed Massimo's posts will sense that his message is being distorted (per Neil degrasse Tyson's caveat). I'm on board with Massimo's attempt to reduce the volume, to delimit the question vis-a-vis what a position of atheism entails. He's not intellectually or morally responsible for those who politically embellish on what most consider a relatively simple metaphysical position. Speaking for myself, my agreement with Sean is predicated on my opinion that Jefferson's separation of Church and State was plainly dictated by his willingness to accommodate the concerns of the Danbury Baptists, not the American Atheists.

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  32. Thank you so much for writing this Massimo. As a secular conservaitve/libertarian and a skeptic, I am absolutely sick of being treated as an interloper or some kind of heretic for having different views that, to me, are completely rational.

    It means so much more to me that this message reaffirming my right to belong to secular groups is coming from someone who disagrees with my political views. Thank you.

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    1. I support both Massimo's views on politics and on this issue. I also agree that being an atheist means nothing more than being an atheist.

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  33. If one were, I suppose, to make an argument about atheism and other domains, then perhaps one could argue that there's a link between the approach to knowledge that would logically extend to both. That is to say that atheism and progressivism are two sides of the same coin. Though to make such a claim is prima facie implausible and thus requires strong justification. It's not enough just to proclaim the logical link. In practice, I'm not sure why it needs to happen, other than to try to really an existing "movement" around somewhat related causes. Though it seems far more divisive than inclusive.

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  34. Great and fearless post! The only way to understand each other is open, honest discussion. The culture of silencing dissenters will only bring us an intellectual dark age. Hopefully self skepticism will catch on, we all need it.��

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  35. "There could be a ‘secular’ argument against puppies, in that case. If you’re using ‘secular’ to mean ‘a logical, science-based, or rational’ belief, then no, there is no ‘secular argument’ against abortion. The supposed ‘secular arguments’ against abortion are rooted in misogyny, a lack of understanding of science, and religious overtones.”
    I really dislike this approach to argument. The "heads I win, tails you're scum" rhetoric. I don't get why one would go down this path unless one is trying to drive a wedge into people on the fence.

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  36. The need of the present day is such blogs. It should be widely circulated among the youth and students. Rational thinking, scientific method only can lead into sane future. Child abuse through religious blind beliefs are harming which should be stopped through such blog.

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  37. On the issue of "secular" arguments against abortion? Those are the "secular" arguments for unwanted children. Yes, that's a difficult, maybe impossible case, but it is the real burden on the so-called pro-life believers.

    And every rights argument should be grounded by examples where the proponent of the rights of unborn children point at the victims of loss of rights. Of course, they'll end up pointing at the woman instead. "Pro-life" is like parapsychology, the problem is not the logic of the arguments from the premises, it's whether the premises (ESP, distinct rights of the zygote/embryo/fetus) correspond to reality.

    And you can assess the relevance of the potential life arguments by asking how important potential is in other situations. If a university for example decided it had to limit class sizes for law school, does an aborted law student get to sue the university for terminating it's potential earnings as an attorney?

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    1. Your analogy is "not even wrong."

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    2. Fortunately it is not an analogy but a hypothetical example of "potential" in a different context. It's true that in the hypothetical example, the "potential" can't be evaluated and therefore can't constitute a meaningful loss. The reframing makes it look like a terrible argument, but I think that's because "potential" for life is genuinely meaningless.

      There is an analogy to abortion, but it is in whether the student is like a fetus, entitled to go full term regardless of the wishes of the university/mother, analogous to the pro-life view. Or whether the needs of the university are determinative, as in the pro-choice view. The real analogy has nothing to do with "potential" so I suppose you can say it' not even wrong in reference to that.

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  38. C,

    > the problem with the embryo/fetus/newborn argument is a sorites problem. … I think it's hard to say, and I think reasonable people can disagree on where that line is. <

    Exactly.

    > For the record, I'm pro-choice, so I'm not putting up these arguments to vindicate pro-lifers. <

    Yes. I find it slightly disturbing that we need this sort of disclaimer in order to engage in a reasonable conversation about complex ethical issues. But such is the current status of the debate, I’m afraid.

    Jean-Nicolas,

    > On the tumor comparison, I was comparing them to embryos and fetuses, not newborns <

    But as C pointed out above, there is a continuous line among those, where do you draw it? Yes, of course there is no ethically salient difference between, say, a fertilized zygote, or an early implanted embryo, and a tumor. But the closer you get to the other end of the spectrum the more the tumor comparison becomes strange.

    > On the pain issue, I would actually lean to the side of the utilitarians but I was under the impression that Massimo most definitely does not, so I was a bit surprised by his argument and that is why I probed for more. <

    It is a common misconception that only utilitarians care about the consequences of moral actions. Virtue ethicists care too. The difference is that for utilitarians that is *all* that matters, while for virtue ethicists there are other considerations as well (e.g., having to do with the character of the moral agent).

    James,

    > This is incorrect. Ethical Culture describes itself as a religion, pure and simple. It does not claim to be secular, although it is secularist. <

    That strikes me as a distinction without a difference, honestly.

    Ryan,

    > the people who experience regret or emotional trauma after having an abortion do so because they were raised to believe it is wrong; and since the people around them believe it is wrong, they don't have any emotional support <

    I disagree, at least anecdotally. I have been closely involved in one such episode many years ago, and I can assure that the woman involved did not fit this description, and yet did feel the emotional weight of an ethically difficult decision. It was the right decision, but I was glad she thought carefully about it and didn’t treat it in a cavalier manner.

    enuma,

    > There was nothing difficult or emotional about my abortion. I didn't feel any sadness or regret. <

    I have no idea what the specific circumstances were, so I cannot and will not comment on this. But see above for an instance where I was involved and did know the circumstances very intimately.

    > I'm so glad that there's a man here to tell me what emotions I should or shouldn't be experiencing when about making decisions about my body and future. <

    As others have pointed out, nobody can tell you or anyone what emotions you should or should not experience. But being a man doesn’t disqualify me from writing about the moral salience of particular decisions, regardless of whether I have had first-hand experience of them (I have had second-hand experience, does that count?) or not.

    Incidentally, we *all* do that. We talk about the moral salience of all sorts of acts done by others and of which we do not have direct experience. Should we disqualify ourselves from engaging in discussions of anything we haven’t done in first person? Because that would make for a mostly silent world.

    > I don't care for having abortion treated as some fascinating but ultimately abstract topic of discussion when my rights to my body are constantly being eroded away <

    This is not at all an abstract discussion, it’s as applied as ethics can get. And notice that nobody here — neither I nor Dave — has ever talked about taking anyone’s rights away.

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    1. Massimo, as I say elsewhere on this thread, a good analogy is capital punishment. I have a "right" to speak against capital punishment, even if I've never had a friend or relative murdered. I find some of the hyperbole is designed to shut down discussion on this issue. Fortunately, the #mansplaning tag has not yet been pulled out.

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  39. —-,

    > "To decide to get an abortion is always (or, at least, should always be) a very difficult and emotional step, precisely because it has significant ethical consequences." <--This is sexist. <

    Really? You have a *very* expansive notion of what counts as sexist, one that — needless to say — I entirely reject.

    > To assume that one must agonize over a decision because a potential proto-person is occupying my internal organs is wrong. <

    Hyperbole won’t get you anywhere. Nobody talked about “agonizing.” I simply said that abortion is an ethically complex issue. Suppose you were about to engage in a very late terms abortion. Would the procedure not bother you at all, ethically? Would you be bothered by infanticide of a new baby? Where, precisely, do you draw that line?

    > We don't demand that people provide their doctors with reasons why they deserve to not donate a kidney, or blood, or bone marrow to an adult person who would die without it. <

    Interesting analogy. But suppose I were the only person that could save my brother’s life by donating a kidney to him. No law should force me to do so, but if I were to say that I don’t think that the situation is morally problematic at all I would come across at the very least as uncaring, and possibly as seriously disconnected from human emotion and morality.

    > The vast majority of abortions are performed while the pregnancy is a collection of barely differentiated cells. What are the significant ethical consequences of that? <

    None. Can you point to a passage were I wrote otherwise?

    > Children do have significant ethical consequences. … Those resources are taken from other systems, to the detriment of those systems. <

    Again, where did I disagree with this?

    > Who is harmed by a person's choice not to procreate? <

    Did I say someone was?

    And yes, even deciding to have a cat has ethical consequences. Just not on the scale of having a child, I would say.

    > If abortion is "less clear cut" than marriage equality or prayer in schools (neither of which affect anyone's bodily autonomy) then I am obviously not a full person in the eyes of the movement. This is upsetting. <

    Yes, it is. But I think you are imputing more to Dave than he meant to say (you certainly are doing it to me!). I don’t get how you go from “gay marriage is less ethically problematic than abortion” to “I am less than a full person in the eyes of the movement.” It truly doesn’t follow.

    > when I see them both say so, often, loudly, and to all potential recruits we can move on to other "important" things (like bigfoot, chem-trails, and not having to swear on a bible to give testimony or serve in public office). <

    I’ve hardly seen a worst caricature of my own positions, which probably means there is no point in me trying to explain again why none of the above follows from what I actually wrote.

    frogmistress,

    > Do you realize that you just told women, all women, that they should approach abortion, a procedure you will never have, as a difficult and emotional step? You just told us all how we should feel about our decisions. <

    As I wrote above, emotions are as emotions are. I simply made the point that abortion is more ethically complex than other issues, like gay rights. You may disagree with that statement, and we can have a conversation about it. But accusing me of emotional manipulation isn’t a good beginning for a conversation.

    > Telling us how we should feel is hubris at its best. <

    I’m sure you meant at its worst. But see my response above about the hypothetical case of having to donate a kidney to my brother. And of course — even though that’s not what I was doing — we tell people how they should feel about things of which we don’t have direct experience all the time. It’s part of our moral discourse. “Should” someone feel remorse at, say, steeling? Would you tell him so, even though you have never stolen anything?

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  40. Thomas,

    > I suspect that NA is something more than the failure of some to believe that secular humanism adequately covers their concerns. <

    Indeed. And as you probably know I’ve recently published a technical paper that discusses, in part, why NA is so popular. But of course none of this affects my original point that atheism per se carries no logical connection to most political positions (except for Church-State separation and the like).

    > Goodness, I think the messenger has been shot. Anyone who's followed Massimo's posts will sense that his message is being distorted <

    Which was predictable. I walked into this with my eyes open. I find it disturbing that someone felt it necessary to refer to my post as “brave” while all I did was to point out what I think is a pretty obvious ethical issue.

    Michael,

    > It means so much more to me that this message reaffirming my right to belong to secular groups is coming from someone who disagrees with my political views. Thank you. <

    But we still disagree on politics! ;-)

    DM,

    > the fact that Massimo is a man who will never have an abortion does not, in my view, mean that he cannot have an opinion on the subject. His arguments should be attacked on their merits and not based on who he is. <

    Exactly, and make no mistake about it, that was precisely the intended meaning of some of the above criticisms.

    > That said, once this conflict has been resolved (in favour of the mother's autonomy, hopefully), the actual act of abortion need not be troubling. <

    Actually, I disagree. First of all, it depends on what the circumstances are. As I said above, there is no moral salience in considering the abortion of a fertilized zygote, a recently implanted embryo, and so forth. But the decision to terminate in late term, or to commit infanticide of the type (and under the very restrictive conditions) advocated by Peter Singer should *never* been taken lightly because it does have moral implications. I am speaking as a virtue ethicist here, a position where the character of the person, the motivations of his actions and the consequences of those actions all count. There are parallels here with many other ethically relevant decisions where we may have made up our mind (say, we decided it is okay to engage in certain military actions that are sure to cause civilian casualties) and yet we don’t take those actions lightly.

    > I didn't realise you were pissed off with him! <

    I’m actually not, that was an off the cuff comment. But I do find it problematic that he would go around *as President of AA* personally endorsing one political position or another that have nothing to do with atheism. He has all the right to do so qua private citizen, but there are certain responsibilities of office that he has not taken sufficiently at hearth, in my mind (and in that of other AA members).

    > I would say it is morally problematic prima facie, but I'm not sure that it is after analysis. I really do think that the mother's right to autonomy is paramount. <

    I think the same, but it doesn’t follow that the issue isn’t problematic. Think of it from a Kantian (!!) perspective of conflicting duties: we have arrived at a decision that one duty (toward the mother) is paramount, so it trumps the others. That doesn’t mean that it does so trivially, and that we should therefore treat the other dimensions of the issue cavalierly.

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    1. Hi Massimo,

      >That doesn’t mean that it does so trivially, and that we should therefore treat the other dimensions of the issue cavalierly.<

      OK. You may be right, but I do fee a certain queasiness about telling a woman how she should feel about her abortion, and that seems to be what you are doing. But then, I'm a consequentialist, not a virtue ethicist, and I don't regard babies (even newborns) as people. As such, I don't have any major issues with taking abortion trivially. Especially if we tolerate slaughtering animals for meat.

      I think from the perspective of some of the women who have posted here, your position seems to uniquely lack empathy for their situation. It might help to explain your views in other somewhat analogous situations that do not apply specifically to them.

      For example, you may believe it is sometimes morally necessary to kill somebody (e.g. a dangerous intruder threatening your daughter), but you may also believe that one should feel troubled by this and there is something wrong if it is casually brushed off. In this case, you are indeed saying how somebody in that situation should feel, and it's a situation you could conceivably be in yourself. Likewise, you may feel that there is no moral imperative to donate a kidney to save a life, but perhaps you should feel somewhat troubled by your decision not to.

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    2. Is it a queasiness of telling women how they should feel for something (or abortion specifically) or telling anyone what emotion they should feel? I get the feeling that these topics, due to their emotional charge, often make people back down on talking about what one ought to feel but are perfectly okay with doing it in other situations.

      I think the issue of what ought someone feel is a very interesting one as well as whether or not that is a question we can even ask. Perhaps Massimo can write about that as a topic separate from a specific content area but my hunch is that no one will have a problem with it in the abstract but will get angry when it's an issue that is personal to them.

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    3. Hi Imad,

      I'm not sure I like the idea of telling people what emotion they should feel in any situation. But I'm open to persuasion.

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    4. I actually agree that we should not tell people what emotion they should or ought to be feel but I'm curious to see what the argument on the other side is. Personally, I think people's actions are far more important, even if we have a strong intuition that the emotion should follow. Fortunately, for most people, the emotions do match up with the actions.

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    5. It's not real clear how virtue ethics bears upon this. For the sake of clarification, let's assume that it's true that there really are valid objections. And let's also assume that somehow the mother in question somehow had never thought about these issues before. If such a mother were then to decide on a late-term abortion lightly and thoughtlessly, then doesn't virtue ethics hold that she is lacking the virtue needed to care for a child? Isn't the virtue ethics problem really the justification for compelling an unvirtuous character to undertake an enterprise requiring virtues already demonstrated to be lacking?

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    6. >>I actually agree that we should not tell people what emotion they should or ought to be feel but I'm curious to see what the argument on the other side is. Personally, I think people's actions are far more important, even if we have a strong intuition that the emotion should follow.

      I'll give a crack at this.

      First, let me clarify my claim: I'm arguing that emotions can be *subject to moral evaluation*. This is just to say that it's appropriate to make normative judgments about the emotional reactions people have in various situations (e.g., "You laughed at seeing that dog get tortured? That's horrible!"). I assume this is what you mean when you talk about "telling people what emotion they ought to feel."

      Now, you said, "I think people's actions are far more important [than their emotions reactions]." Of course, the general fact that X is far more important than Y doesn't imply that Y isn't also important.

      More importantly, though, I would say that emotional reactions *are* important, and that this is reflected in the fact that we make normative judgments about people's emotional reactions *all the time*. Like I mentioned above, the judgment that it's horrible to be amused by a dog being tortured seems pretty normal. If somebody admitted to me that he hates women, or Jews, or gays, etc., even though he carefully monitors his behavior and doesn't actively mistreat them (perhaps to avoid getting in any trouble), I would say there's something wrong with his attitude towards those groups. If a man commits a murder and doesn't feel regret or remorse for committing that murder, then the lack of regret or remorse seems to me to be a moral failing *in addition* to the act of murder itself. (As stated above, we might agree that the actual murder is far more important than the lack of remorse, but that doesn't mean that there's nothing wrong with the lack of remorse.)

      If you agree that we make normative judgments about emotions all the time in everyday life, I would say that the burden is on you to explain why we *shouldn't* continue this practice. My guess is that your main argument is something like, "We can't control our emotions the way we can control our actions, so we shouldn't be held morally responsible for the emotions we feel."

      There are at least two responses to this.

      First, as everybody familiar with the free-will debate knows, it's going to be difficult to spell out the sense in which we 'have control' over our actions but not our emotions. If this is your argument against subjecting emotions to moral evaluation, then your argument for why actions *should* be subject to moral evaluation is going to be tied up in all kinds of tricky issues involving free-will.

      You might try to avoid this problem by being a consequentialist and simply declaring that an action is right or wrong to the extent that it causes an increase or decrease in overall utility - thus ignoring issues involving free will. But emotions can also cause an increase or decrease in utility to the extent that they have a causal influence over behavior, so why not subject *them* to moral evaluation too?

      Second response: just as we don't have direct control over our emotional reactions, it appears that we don't have direct control over our beliefs (just look up the vast literature on 'doxastic voluntarism'). And yet this doesn't stop us from evaluating beliefs all the time ("That's irrational!" "You're stupid to believe that!" etc.), nor does it stop us from telling people what they should or shouldn't believe. So if we can make normative judgments about beliefs, even though we don't have direct control over our own beliefs, why can't we make normative judgments about emotions too?

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    7. C, thanks for providing well thought out arguments. This is an interesting topic, let me see if I can clarify my position in response to the challenges your raise.

      >>>First, let me clarify my claim: I'm arguing that emotions can be *subject to moral evaluation*. This is just to say that it's appropriate to make normative judgments about the emotional reactions people have in various situations (e.g., "You laughed at seeing that dog get tortured? That's horrible!"). I assume this is what you mean when you talk about "telling people what emotion they ought to feel."
<<<

      Intuitively I completely agree with you, I have a gut reaction that the person who laughs at dog torture is doing something morally off and repulsive. However, I have a hard time finding a rationale for why it’s wrong outside of referring back to the action of the individual. So for example, if this person who was laughing at the dog being tortured but was actively stopping the torture from happening and saving the dog, is this person doing something moral? I feel like there is a hidden assumption for the example of the person laughing at the dog and how he or she will also not help the dog. However, if we separate those two out (emotion from action), I don’t see what is morally wrong with the laughing or feelings of amusements, even though intuitively it doesn’t sit well with me.

      >>>Now, you said, "I think people's actions are far more important [than their emotions reactions]." Of course, the general fact that X is far more important than Y doesn't imply that Y isn't also important.
<<<

      I was unclear here, I would restate it in the stronger form of “Actions are all that matter” so even though having the emotion that matches our actions would be nice, it’s not in anyway necessary nor is it immoral if you don’t have that emotion.

      >>>More importantly, though, I would say that emotional reactions *are* important, and that this is reflected in the fact that we make normative judgments about people's emotional reactions *all the time*. Like I mentioned above, the judgment that it's horrible to be amused by a dog being tortured seems pretty normal. If somebody admitted to me that he hates women, or Jews, or gays, etc., even though he carefully monitors his behavior and doesn't actively mistreat them (perhaps to avoid getting in any trouble)
<<<

      Again intuitively I am with you but I still don’t see the necessity of having the corresponding emotion. I agree that the person who secretly hates women but won’t act on it is probably not a person I may like but from an ethical standpoint, I can’t see why I would see this person as immoral. I guess this goes to what meta-ethical stance we take, Massimo and virtue ethicists would say it is not building the appropriate virtues and character so it makes sense from a virtue ethics perspective to judge emotions but from my point of view (which is not virtue ethics but contractarian), there is nothing wrong with feeling one way and acting the other way.

      To give an example from my own work with emotional disorders, I often work with individuals that have overwhelming urges to harm others or themselves. We don’t try to tell these people that their emotions are right or wrong but they are just part of their conditioned history and biological make up and that they still can choose to act one way or the other. As such, we are able to help them separate out the idea that just because they are having this emotion, doesn’t mean they act on it. Moreover, we rarely get people to stop having those emotions but they go on to live their lives, having emotions that some might consider immoral, but still living as good moral citizens towards others. I find it very hard to see the justification to say they are morally culpable of having those emotions. Now if they acted on the emotions, that’s a different matter.

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    8. >>>If you agree that we make normative judgments about emotions all the time in everyday life, I would say that the burden is on you to explain why we *shouldn't* continue this practice. My guess is that your main argument is something like, "We can't control our emotions the way we can control our actions, so we shouldn't be held morally responsible for the emotions we feel."
<<<

      I am guilty of making those normative judgments but again, I can’t really justify them so I don’t think I ought to make those judgments. Same way I still eat meat but think it’s morally wrong to kill and eat animals. I’m working on my own moral shortcoming in these areas.


      >>>First, as everybody familiar with the free-will debate knows, it's going to be difficult to spell out the sense in which we 'have control' over our actions but not our emotions. If this is your argument against subjecting emotions to moral evaluation, then your argument for why actions *should* be subject to moral evaluation is going to be tied up in all kinds of tricky issues involving free-will. <<<

      Well in terms of free will, I’m a compatiblist so I do see different degrees of freedom that one can be held
”responsible” for, such as consciously controlling one’s actions. Here however I think the distinction is clear between choosing our actions and choosing our emotions, where the latter is not directly in our conscious control but the former is. Emotions are never directly changed by our conscious thoughts and there’s substantial psychological literature to support that.

      >>>You might try to avoid this problem by being a consequentialist and simply declaring that an action is right or wrong to the extent that it causes an increase or decrease in overall utility - thus ignoring issues involving free will. But emotions can also cause an increase or decrease in utility to the extent that they have a causal influence over behavior, so why not subject *them* to moral evaluation too?

<<<

      I’m not a consequentialist but if it could be shown that emotions have causal influence over our actions, than I would agree that emotions should be judged as morally right or wrong. However, I don’t think the research supports the idea that emotions are causally related to our actions (see my example above regarding the patients) but I’m at least open to the idea if it were true. This again just points to the actions as the actual morally relevant factor, not the emotions themselves.

      >>>Second response: just as we don't have direct control over our emotional reactions, it appears that we don't have direct control over our beliefs (just look up the vast literature on 'doxastic voluntarism'). And yet this doesn't stop us from evaluating beliefs all the time ("That's irrational!" "You're stupid to believe that!" etc.), nor does it stop us from telling people what they should or shouldn't believe. So if we can make normative judgments about beliefs, even though we don't have direct control over our own beliefs, why can't we make normative judgments about emotions too?<<<

      I don’t think I would make normative judgments in the sense that people shouldn’t believe X or Y. I can tell them under certain conditions of rational inquiry, the belief X or Y don’t make the cut. Even in this example, I would go back to actions. If someone believes in creationism but that is a private belief, they don’t act on it by going to try to stop evolution from being taught or trying in act laws against evolution, than I don’t think there is anything wrong with that person holding that belief. Again, this wouldn’t be true unless we asked “Is that belief rationale” but that is separate from me pushing them to believe one way or the other. People are free to believe whatever they want but actions on the other hand will require public scrutiny.

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    9. I pretty much agree with everything in Imad's commentary. I have also put my own take on the issue of whether emotions are morally relevant in reply to Massimo in the post-script blog post.

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  41. This is an excellent post. I think that one of the problems when discussing this issue is that the pro choice camp tend to think about the embryo/fetus as either existing as a human being or not, while others focus on the continuum in becoming human without able to tell exactly when the fetus is considered human.

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  42. __To decide to get an abortion is always (or, at least, should always be) a very difficult and emotional step. __

    No it's not, nor should it always be.

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    1. Nell,

      you are correct, and I just amended that sentence in the main post. See if you agree with the modified version.

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    2. Yes, I do. Thank you for taking my comment seriously.

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    3. You are aware that last trimester abortions are rare and usually occur because of severe medical problems with either the fetus or the woman. So the amendment to the previous statement doesn't make it any less of a non sequitur.

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    4. Massimo,

      The original quote you have since amended is being widely discussed on other websites. It may be useful to point out in your actual post that it was amended since the original quote was a point of contention for a lot of people. Discussions surrounding it are becoming difficult as people are comparing two sets of notes.

      Delete
    5. Reid,

      Thanks, will do so when I get back to my computer later today or tomorrow morning. I will also likely add a postscript about PZ's commentary on this post.

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    6. Oh lordy, PZ's writing about this?

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    7. I'm not sure any wording would help at this point. Sometimes it helps to to ask for clarification from the author (which in this case he's tried to provide) as some did on this post. I have read, for example, this: "That [ending an unwanted pregnancy] ought to be an easy decision, except, of course, for the weight of tradition and guilt artificially imposed on us."

      First, we facilely travel from an "is" to an "ought," then we qualify the nature of the "decision" as "easy," presumably because by their nature "unwanted" events are "easy" to dismiss because they are "unwanted." But just in case one happens, nevertheless, to feel "uneasy," just dismiss this uneasiness as "the result of the weight of tradition and guilt artificially imposed." Which to my mind simply reduces feelings to one of polemics and a rather naive insistence that a politically correct argument will somehow make vapor of the easiness or uneasiness of a decision to abort a pregnancy. So perhaps the phrase "significant ethical consequences" to some is simply code speak for
      "guilt" to those who are inclined to attribute guilt in some binary fashion. And the real problem to them is not an unwanted pregnancy but where and how guilt is correctly assigned.

      In my personal experience, I know that this is not the case, that describing the ease or unease of the decision is not reducible to an argument, that the preoccupation with the right or wrong of such decisions in many cases does not dissipate over time and does not begin to subsume a person's feelings. So perhaps we change the wording from "significant ethical decisions" to "significant existential decisions." Does that help? Not really. Not for the individual who makes a decision like this and then must live with it.

      I read nothing in the original post that led me to believe the author was drawing on "the result of the weight of tradition and guilt artificially imposed." The post dealt with the scope of atheism in political and moral spaces.

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    8. Reid,

      the footnote commenting on the difference btw the original and modified post has now been added. I hope this clarifies things.

      Delete
  43. See, this is why Neil deGrasse Tyson is reluctant to say he's an atheist. Too many people on both the religious right AND the secular left equating atheism with anti-theism and leftist politics.

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  44. For what it's worth, I see that American Atheists is already listed to be an exhibitor at Netroots Nation 2014 ("Think of it as a giant family reunion for the left"). No controversy there (unless they wear GOP buttons!).

    http://www.netrootsnation.org/nn14/exhibitors/

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  45. The idea that men have "no right" to comment on abortion is ridiculous.

    I have a right to oppose capital punishment, even if no relative or close friend has ever been murdered, for example.

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  46. Couple of clarifications: I am not "under the misguided understanding that atheism is a special province of political progressivism" and never said it was, anywhere in any of my writings. I object to being so strawmanned.

    Also, this statement is inaccurate: In particular Ahlquist really didn’t like the following sound bite from the AA President: “I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion. You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.”

    What I objected to was what I said: Silverman offered up women's reproductive rights as a possible point of compromise/commonality between some pro-life atheists and the socially conservative group Right to Life.

    To be clear, I don't care that Silverman went to CPAC, or that he's making overtures to conservative groups. I wanted to point out that such overtures come at a cost, and one of those costs in this case is reproductive rights. (Though Silverman and the AA are backtracking on this, at least publicly and very vociferously, so perhaps this is a positive outcome.)

    To be perfectly clear, Silverman made the comment about pro-Life atheists in respnse to Edroso pointing out that social conservatives, like the Right to Life people, are bedrock CPAC attendees. Edroso did not mention pro-life atheists first, as Silverman maintains, Silverman brought them up first. (I have an email from Edroso in which he states that the conversation occurred as he initially reported it.)

    Is it possible to interpret the conversation in other ways? Perhaps. Perhaps Silverman brought up pro-life atheists out of nowhere, apropos of nothing. But an honest reading of the original conversation as reported by Edroso can lead one to legitimately make the claim that Silverman was searching for compromise and commonality with CPAC.

    Others may disagree, and I get that, but please critique me on my arguments.

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    1. Steve Ahlquist: "But an honest reading of the original conversation as reported by Edroso can lead one to legitimately make the claim that Silverman was searching for compromise and commonality with CPAC."

      Here's what was in the original story:

      "'I came with the message that Christianity and conservatism are not inextricably linked,' he told me, 'and that social conservatives are holding down the real conservatives -- social conservatism isn’t real conservatism, it’s actually big government, it’s theocracy. I’m talking about gay rights, right to die, abortion rights --'

      "Hold on, I said, I think the Right to Life guys who have a booth here, and have had every year since CPAC started, would disagree that they’re not real conservatives.

      “'I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion,' said Silverman. 'You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.'”

      So Silverman mentions a list of things that social conservatives are against because of religion, that is, being against "gay rights, right to die, abortion rights." After Edroso points out the presence of the Right-to-Lifers, Silverman then corrects his previous partially correct factual assertion and acknowledges that abortion rights may not fit in as clear-cut a way on a list of things that people are against because of religion, since there are secular arguments against it.

      Notice who Silverman is aiming his acknowledgement towards: Edroso himself, who is hardly a conservative. There's no indication that he's been talking to conservatives and proposing to soft-pedal reproductive rights issues for their sakes, and no indication that he was even planning to do so. Given all that, your case for the claim that Silverman "threw women’s rights under the bus" is terribly shaky.

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    2. It is a different thing, J.J. Ramsey, to disagree with my interpretation than to misrepresent it. However, if your interpretation is correct, why did Silverman mischaracterize the conversation on Secular Sunshine, claiming that Edroso brought up pro-life atheists first? If, as you maintain, your interpretation is correct, why the need to bolster the case by accusing Edroso of getting his facts wrong?

      Also, Silverman points out a list of things people are against because of religion, including abortion rights. Edroso points out the Right to Life guys, who are people against abortion because of religion. In your interpretation, Edroso is agreeing with Silverman, which makes no sense. Silverman could say, "Yeah, right?" and end that part of the conversation right there.

      Your interpretation, to my mind, isn't compelling.

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    3. "why did Silverman mischaracterize the conversation on Secular Sunshine, claiming that Edroso brought up pro-life atheists first?"

      You mean this?: "I said that all of the social conservative agenda was religious in nature, to which the reporter eagerly countered that there was a secular argument for abortion. He clearly knew he was right, and so did I - there is a secular argument (one with which I firmly disagree) whose existence I cannot deny."

      I can think of a couple possibilities. One, things happened as Silverman said, and Edroso misremembered. How likely that is, of course, depends on whether Edroso took notes or recorded the conversation. Two, when Edroso pointed out the presence of Right-to-Lifers, Silverman thought Edroso was referring to secular anti-abortion advocates and responded accordingly. That certainly would readiliy make sense of Silverman saying that he "will admit there is a secular argument against abortion," as if he were conceding something to Edroso.

      Let me also point out that your question is a non sequitur anyway. If you are going to claim that Silverman was intending to put women's rights under the bus, then you need evidence that he was at least planning to talk to conservatives about such a thing. You've come nowhere near that.

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    4. Edroso was quite clear in his email to me that he reported the conversation accurately.

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    5. "Edroso was quite clear in his email to me that he reported the conversation accurately."

      That tells me almost nothing. Edroso could be utterly confident that he remembered correctly and still be mistaken. Human memory is like that. If he took notes or recorded the conversation, then I can have reasonable trust that he reported the conversation accurately. Otherwise, I'm going to have far more trust in the broad strokes than the details.

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  47. I'm not even sure that being an atheist automatically entails being in favor of a strict separation between state & church. Jean-Nicolas Denonne made an interesting remark about Belgium. I know the situation in Belgium a bit. The state supports a number of "cultes" (a French word meaning, more or less, "worship") and the "laïcité organisée" ("organized secular humanism").

    It's possible that this support has made life easier for atheists (and apatheists like me). It's great to preach against abortion, gay marriage etc. but I imagine people have a distinct tendency to tone it down a bit when they know that their job and their income depend on the same state that introduced abortion, gay marriage etc.

    You could call it bribery - but you could also say it's a way to tame the beast. I don't follow thing very closely, but the support that's given to islam was a very clever way to undermine the moral authority of this particular religion. Since "organized islam" is supported, their "organisation" only reaches the papers with reports about bitchy infighting, discussions about misallocations of funds etc.

    I think it's possible for consequentialist atheists to be in favor of state support for "cultes".

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  48. Its all very simple I think. We reason based on evidence and logic. If they are lacking we refute. We do it one case at a time. We can generalize if repetitive but Mrs McGregor's ghost is not the shaman or the moonie. Take them one by one. They make claims, refute them or not. Generalizing is not reasoning. It is economizing time and effort. Reasoning is open to the next case however unlikely. We don't have crystal balls. Parsimony is just a burden of proof for economy, not reasoning. If we generalize its for economy because the track record for a nether world is zilch. Reasoning is talking to Mrs McGregor and refuting her to add to the list. Reasoning is an endless process, but its "reasonable" to economize. Just make sure you know the difference. You can never close off logic and evidence around any paradigm. Period.

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  49. Hello Disagreeable Me

    > "Would you mind clarifying this? It seems to me that feelings are essential to morality. Even consequentialism is rooted in the feeling that we should try to maximise well-being for all. Without these moral intuitions (which I would call feelings) morality is entirely meaningless."

    I find it weird that a moral system would prescribe what emotions you should feel. You feel what you feel and you have no control over that. Even if you practice mindful meditation and let some of those feelings wash away, it did not prevent you from feeling in the first place. I agree that feelings and desire are the root cause of our actions but what is in the purview of morality is how we act on them.

    A pedophile is not wrong to feel strong sexual attraction to children, he is wrong if he acts on those feelings. The idea that some emotions are "correct" and others "incorrect" is a very unhealthy one. Applying it to yourself will prevent from facing certain types of emotions and will very probably lead you to psychological and relational problems (I have been there.) Applying it to others will probably lead to abuse...

    Massimo

    > "But as C pointed out above, there is a continuous line among those, where do you draw it? Yes, of course there is no ethically salient difference between, say, a fertilized zygote, or an early implanted embryo, and a tumor. But the closer you get to the other end of the spectrum the more the tumor comparison becomes strange."

    My point exactly. C says that reasonable people can disagree on where the line is and I would put that line several day after birth. So when you say that terminating pregnancy is always a difficult decision (I see you somewhat qualified that statement, but I still disagree, especially on the emotional part, see above), I would disagree since we are nowhere near the line I draw. (But maybe I construe your "should always be" as stronger than it is)

    I consider killing wrong for mostly two reasons. It deprives other individuals who formed attachments to the dead of a loved one (and this is one of the reason I do not consider the right to die to be a slam dunk.) But if nobody has attached to the newborn, this does not stand. The second reason is that it thwarts the desires of the individual being killed. I do not consider a day old newborn to have such things as desires given his limited awareness of himself and of his environment. He certainly has instincts for preservation but I would not consider that as a desire, earthworms do have preservation instincts too but we do not consider that as very important.

    An adult dog certainly has more emotional depth and awareness than a newborn and I do not see widespread outrage at the euthanasia of dogs by the thousands in animal shelters.

    > "It is a common misconception that only utilitarians care about the consequences of moral actions. Virtue ethicists care too. The difference is that for utilitarians that is *all* that matters, while for virtue ethicists there are other considerations as well (e.g., having to do with the character of the moral agent)."

    But don't you consider it is not correct to assign the same value to all suffering? If so, saying that a fetus can feel pain is not sufficient. Wouldn't you have to argue what weight we should give to it?

    I apologize for the clumsy nitpicking but I really do want to understand how you get to some of your positions. Thanks for your patience.

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    1. Hi Jean-Nicolas,

      Thanks for clarifying. I actually agree with you on all of this. I see what you mean now. My initial confusion arose out of my belief that morality is fundamentally rooted in emotion, but I agree with you that what emotions we ought to feel should not be morally prescribed.

      However, it may be that there are ideal and sub-optimal emotional responses. I would not hold a paedophile to be morally responsible for his latent desires, but I do think it is reasonable to say that one shouldn't feel sexual desire for children in the sense that this is not a desirable state of affairs. (Like saying the heart shouldn't beat quickly when you are at rest).

      In this latter sense, there may be a case to be made for which emotions are appropriate in certain situations, though whether this applies to abortion I don't know.

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    2. Hi Jean-Nicolas,

      >>I find it weird that a moral system would prescribe what emotions you should feel. You feel what you feel and you have no control over that...I agree that feelings and desire are the root cause of our actions but what is in the purview of morality is how we act on them.

      I gave a reply to exactly this kind of argument in response to Imad's post above. I would be interested in hearing your response (if you can find it).

      >>But don't you consider it is not correct to assign the same value to all suffering? If so, saying that a fetus can feel pain is not sufficient. Wouldn't you have to argue what weight we should give to it?

      It depends on the point that Massimo is trying to make. If Massimo were arguing against abortion, then it would be important to argue that the pain of the fetus outweighs the pain of the mother. But I don't think that's the point he's making - rather, he's just trying to point out why, even if an abortion is perfectly morally justified, it is not a decision to be made lightly.

      To use an analogy, think of any situation where you have to risk or sacrifice the lives of a few to save the lives of many. Take the famous trolley problem, for example. Everybody might agree that it's morally permissible to redirect the trolley so that it hits one person instead of five. But I think it would be weird if somebody made the choice without feeling any tinge of regret or remorse at all. Just because it's clear that saving the five people is the right thing to do, the fact that you need to kill one person should not be taken lightly. Indeed, the fact that doing the right thing requires killing an innocent person really sucks!

      So when Massimo points out the pain of the fetus, I think all he's saying is that killing the fetus isn't something that should be taken lightly. This is true even if the decision is clearly morally justified, as it is in the trolley problem.

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    3. Well put on the pain issue and the many lives issue. I, and others, argue the viability issue has the same ethical standing.

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  50. OK, let's approach this logically.

    Up until about 419-422, when Augustine of Hippo writes his Catechism, the first Christian injunction against abortion in literature, abortion was practiced in China, Persia, Rome, Greece, and Gaul. Only after the rise of Constantine and Christianity as the state religion did the opposition to abortion and also infanticide become notable. Now, I'm not going into Peter Singer's ethical infanticide debate here in detail, but the point is clear: if you remove the theistic valuation of the life ethic, there is no defense for an anti-abortion stance. Heck, Hindu and Sikh culture still have injunctions for female suicide under certain circumstances. The argument against abortion begins with Christianity, so when that was ever secular boggles my mind.

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    1. Sure there's an secular ethical position against abortion. Or, against abortion after viability.

      And, to riff on a favorite theme of Massimo's, one could base it on Aristotelian flourishing.

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    2. Also, there's a logical failure in your last sentence. Just because arguments against abortion began with Christianity doesn't mean that secuarlists can't develop their own. I don't think knowledgable pro-life secularitists have made a claim to basing their stance on pre-Christian secular philosophical thoughts.

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  51. Thanks for this article Massimino. I am so sick of the people on free thought blogs trying to turn atheism into a progressive political issue. Once PZ Meyers went so far as saying he wanted to run the Libertarians out of Atheism. No matter what one may think about Libertarian ideas in political philosophy it has nothing to do with atheism. In the cause of atheism we are all on the same side.

    All of this internal debate among atheists about who are "real" atheists reminds me of the doctrinal bickering of my youth in the church. The church I attended split into two different congregations over it. I'm sick of atheists who think they define atheism and think they can "excommunicate" other atheists because they don't agree with some political stance. The cause of atheism is being hurt by all this internecine warfare.

    If you want to tell someone they are full of crap about any of these political issues that is fine and proper. But it has nothing to do with atheism.

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    1. Hear, hear. Many "schools" of atheism, like Plusers and Gnus, are as "tribalist" as the Religious Right.

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    2. I had a serious falling out with those people a few years ago, after some years of Greta Christina being one of my favorite bloggers (both on sex and atheist topics). But I absolutely could not get behind the increasing dogmatism of that movement, and the demand that you tow the line down to the letter on issues like anti-harassment policy, intersectional feminism, and much else. The crazy thing is, I'd say I'm in agreement with most of their politics and at the time was a proponent of New Atheism. (Though that's something these people have managed to sour men on.) But once I dared to openly question anything (in this case, some of the more prudish language in conference anti-harassment policies), I was met with outright hatred, piling on, and ostracism. The kind of mentality I saw at work is a recapitulation of exactly the mentality I don't like in religion, so at this point, I'll have nothing to do with that part of the atheist movement. Unfortunately, that burns bridges with some significant part of organized secularism, as I've seen groups like CFI increasingly towing the "A+" line, particularly in the light of the attacks on Ron Lindsay after he said some much-needed things on factionalism and dogmatism in the secular movement. (Ironically, David Silverman and American Atheists was a group they like to claim as being on their "side" as recently as last year, but the Plussers often "claim" anybody who they've ever had a friendly interaction with as one of their own, at least until they step our of line.) In any event, being politically homeless is something I've gotten used to over the years, with the atheist movement being the latest of many that I just can't quite hang with.

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  52. "responds to stimuli and most importantly feels pain"

    Dr Pigliucci, This point has never seemed like a convincing argument against abortion as you could administer anaesthesia to the fetus prior to aborting it. Not only would anaesthesia abolish pain but it would also basically knock out the fetus and make it incapable of responding to any stimuli.

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  53. I'm a libertarian-leaning agnostic atheist. I read your blog post and then some post on Freethoughtblogs in reply to you, and they were so vile (and filled with contempt for anyone who doesn't value progressive ideals) that I returned here to thank you for writing this piece.

    1. I think that government should not reward some relationships with the "marriage" status or tax benefits. But if it does every state should decide for itself which relationships to reward.

    2. I am not a fundamentalist pro-choice person. I believe abortion is a complex issue and at least, late-term abortions should be outlawed. I acknowledge that there are two bodies/lives, not just the mother's that's relevant.

    3. I do not think businesses should be forced to serve someone they don't want to. I do not think Hobby Lobby should be forced to provide insurance it doesn't want to.

    4. I'm a vegan and believe in negative rights for animals (and humans).

    5. I do not believe in a right to healthcare as it's a positive right.

    6. I love Rand Paul and Justin Amash. I also like Tea Party people. I believe in individualism.

    There, I said it. I am not at all a progressive and yet an atheist. Thanks for acknowledging my existence and my views. People who pretend that progressivism is undetachable from atheism are the worst. Charles Cooke of the National Review said it best: that conservatism is what allows the most freedom of thought. (He's an atheist.)

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  56. Ah, Massimo, what is it with the word "religion" that drives you so far up a tree? Ethical Culture was a favorite of Einstein, as it is of mine. There is nothing oxymoronic about its concept of secular religion. Simply put, this is the pulling together of life's greatest concerns in a completely naturalistic way. The mere fact that theism has been a dominant feature of religion does not change or diminish the fact that the religious quest is broader than that: the attempt to understand all things as best we can, and bring it together as a coherent whole. When the primitive farmer first conceived of a god, his concern was to understand and control rainfall, so that his family would have enough food for the coming winter. His answer was theistic but his concerns were secular. There is no reason to divide our humanistic and naturalistic communities over this point.

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